This doesn’t mean that America has fast-forwarded into a post-racial era, whatever that is, or that racial discrimination is over. It does mean that today we can celebrate the astonishing, earth-shaking realization that the country we’ve always loved so much has finally decided to love us back.
It loves us enough to entrust its uncertain future to the black man—and that’s what Obama is, despite all the efforts to chop and slice his ethnic identity—who today becomes the most powerful person in the world.
You cannot have that much faith in someone unless you love him. In our case, that love has been earned. All of our previous battles were, in a sense, tuneups for Barack Obama’s presidency. It has been the historical burden of black people to close the gap between what America promised and what it delivered, to be a sort of national Jiminy Cricket pricking America’s conscience, to compel the nation to live up to the bold words enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
That was leadership from the outside—by protest and agitation—and it worked magnificently. Ours is a better nation, an almost unrecognizably better nation, because of the black struggle for democratic freedom.
Other Americans know, even if they don’t want to acknowledge it, that the America they love so much today would not exist in its present form if we hadn’t been here raising hell. Without us, America would have remained, in the words of Thurgood Marshall, fatally “defective from the start.” Universal suffrage, women’s rights, all of the stuff that makes a democracy would be unthinkable if we hadn’t been here.
And, having brought the nation, kicking and screaming, to this point, it’s finally time for one of us to lead.
Obama was elected in the best possible way to make this point: by a multiracial coalition that embraced a significant share (though not the majority) of whites, Latinos and Jews and the almost unanimous black community.
Just as he—a son of Africa and of Kansas, of the beach of Hawaii and the streets of the South Side of Chicago, of Indonesia and the Ivy League—reconciled in himself conflicting personal identities that might have torn asunder a psychologically lesser man, his presidency offers America an opportunity to forge a new, more unified idea of what it means to be an American. If he—we, really—never accomplishes anything else during his years in the White House, that alone would be amazing enough.
I can’t help it. I’ve got tears in my eyes and a song in my heart.
“Lift ev-very voice and sing!”